Mother – an unfinished lament

An unfinished lament for Margery McGregor

I think of your crisp blue eyes and wispy white hair
That framed your face like a penumbra of snow
I remember the night before you died and I sat
On the floor by your bed holding your hand
I think I never was as close to you as then, so connected
Although we didn’t speak and I knew that the end was near
I felt you like a little girl wanting to give up and trust
What was not in your nature to trust
And just be there and slowly not be there
You who loved to be in touch and free and felt so deeply
But showed so little out of consideration.
Lying on that high bed with the trees hiding the moon and the stars as the night went on
And you didn’t say a word.
The window at my back was cool
And Dad snoring quietly in the bed next to your all unknowing
And not ready to let you go and not knowing that he had no choice.
How dependent he was on you.
The bed lightly covered with the pinkish knitted blanket you loved so much
And that had been with you through so many years
Over your feet the crocheted cover from one of your sisters I think
And the pillows downy and soft just as you liked them.
I just held your hand all through the dark and lightening hours
Dad got up to shave and I noticed your breathing getting lighter and lighter
Until I knew it was time to call him
All he could say was “How will I live without you?”
And I knew that was literally true for all that he lived
For another twelve years it was not really life
He had relied on you too much to give him
The sense of connection and place.
And the dahlias and vygies[1] you loved so much
Are less bright and there is no marmalade bubbling on the stove
With bees being nuisances –
Life is less rich.
What about the roads you longed to travel and didn’t?
What kept you from going there? How did you feel about not
Seeing all the places you had wanted to see?
So a symphony will not be written for you nor will your voice
Rise in song nor speak lovingly and wisely again.
But what a symphony sounds in my ears for you
And ends always on that melancholic Celtic chord.
I miss those hands so business-like and loving
That held me back and pushed me forward.

[1] Vygies are very colourful, small, succulent flowers in the mesembryanthemum family which are endemic to the somewhat arid west coast of South Africa.

Unfulfilled desires

My mother Margery was born on 28 December 1907 and died on the last day of December 1986, a little more than a year after she and my father Murray had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

She was the daughter of a pharmacist who came to South Africa from the United Kingdom and settled with his family first in Oudtshoorn in the Karroo and then in the small city of George, also in the Western Cape. She was one of five sisters.

The piece above I wrote a few years ago, just after my father died, but have never been able to finish or polish it.

My brother Chris was a great musician who lived in France. He came back to visit our father when our mother died. He told me he had always wanted to write a symphony for her, but that he feared no-one would want to play it.

Chris himself died in France at the age of 53 on 26 May 1990, coincidentally our father’s 82nd birthday.

Mother had always had a sort of wanderlust, a desire to move and explore, in contrast to our father’s desire for stability and routine.

The family together for the parent’s Golden Wedding celebration, Halfway House, 28 September 1985

Mother’s dream was, when my father retired, to sell all their possessions, buy a caravan, and hit the road! Dad on the other hand wanted his books around him, and teas regularly at 11.00 a.m. and 4.00 p.m.!

So mother threw herself into things like gardening, cooking (especially jamming) and looking after things. When we lived in Blythswood she kept cows, made butter and cheese, explored natural remedies and folk medicine.

Mother with our dog “Lucky” on the front lawn of our Blythswood house c 1953

I have these great memories of her in the kitchen with huge pots of bubbling jams on the wood stove, bees buzzing around them and sometimes falling into the hot sugary geysers, while outside the garden hummed with colour and energy, flowers and vegetables flourishing from the compost she made.

Even when she became very ill with the cancer that finally killed her she wouldn’t give in, wouldn’t acknowledge that she was suffering, so I don’t think Dad was even aware of how serious it was, how close to death she was.

Mother died without doing the travelling she yearned to do. I always feel very sad when I think about that.

So I guess this piece is all about unfulfilled desires – for a life of adventure and travel, a symphony and a poetic tribute. And life goes on for all that. We get past the Celtic chord and move on, leaving a bit of our hearts someplace, but finding new lives, new connections.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

Sewing Circles and war – a review of Christina Lamb’s Afghanistan memoir

War isn’t beautiful

“War wasn’t beautiful at all. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen and it made me do the ugliest thing I had ever done. The real story of war wasn’t about the firing and the fighting, some Boy’s Own adventure of goodies and baddies. It wasn’t about sitting around in bars making up songs about the mujaheddin we called ‘The Gucci Muj’ with their designer camouflage and pens made from AK47 bullets. It was about the people, the Naems and Lelas, the sons and daughters, the mothers and fathers.” – from Christina Lamb’s The Sewing Circles of Herat (HarperCollins, 2002).

“Dizzy with Kipling and diesel fumes.”

The Sewing Circles of Herat is about the human cost of the “great game” that has been played in and about Afghanistan by the three major powers of imperial Britain, Soviet Russia and the United States, each of them playing the game by the rules of their own particular perceptions of realpolitik , their own interests in the stony and impoverished land made, according to Pashtun legend, from a pile of rocks left over when Allah had finished making the rest of the world.

Lamb’s book, quite different from David Loyn’s Butcher and Bolt , is the story of a foreign correspondent’s personal experiences in the roiling cauldron of violence that has been Afghanistan for the past 30 years, since the December 1979 invasion by the Soviet army, violence that has only increased in intensity since the horror of 9/11.

It is also the story of a young woman, Marri, who wrote a series of letters and a diary during the dark days of the Taliban oppression “On my desk is a handful of letters from a woman of about my own age in Kabul. She risked her life to get them to me and this is also her story.”

The two intersecting stories make for a very moving and at times horrifying read, starting from Lamb’s arrival in Afghanistan, “…stumbling out of a battered mini-bus in the Old City of the frontier town of Peshawar, dizzy with Kipling and diesel fumes.”

“If ever there was a country whose fate was determined by geography,” writes Lamb, “it was the land of the Afghans.”

Christina Lamb re-entering Afghanistan in November 2001.

While Afghanistan was never a colony, it has “always been a natural crossroads – the meeting place of the Middle East, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and the Far East – and thus frequently the battlefield and graveyard of great powers. Afghans spoke of Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, and Tamerlane, as well as various Moghul, Sikh and Persian rulers as if they had just passed through.”

Christina gets a ride in the only convertable in Afghanistan

Into this complex land Lamb came as a “gawky English girl”, a “graduate of philosophy at university and of adolescence in British suburbia”, to witness at first hand the struggle of the mujaheddin against the Soviet occupiers and then again, 12 years later, the effects of the “war on terror” that followed the 9/11 attacks in New York.

The torturer

The Taliban torturer, Mullah Khalil Ahmed Hassani

One of Lamb’s early encounters after the fall of the Taliban was with 30-year-old Mullah Khalil Ahmed Hassani, a business studies graduate from Peshawar University. He was forced to leave his job as an accountant for a trading company in Quetta to join the Taliban who had arrested Hassani’s 85-year-old grandfather in Kandahar and would only release him if a male member of the family joined up.

Hassani was drafted into the secret police and at first patrolled the streets looking for anyone disobeying the many intricate and often absurd regulations such as: women not allowed to buy from male shopkeepers; any woman showing her ankles to be whipped; a ban on shoes with heels or that make any noise as no stranger should hear a woman’s footsteps; a ban on cosmetics, meaning that any woman with painted nails should have her fingers cut off.

A later assignment for the “Taliban torturer” was to guard some shipping containers full of Hazara women and children. Hazaras had been declared, by the governor of Mazar-i-Sharif, Mullah Manon Niazi, non-Muslim “Kofr” and thus “legitimate” targets for the worst possible treatment.

In the 40 plus degree Centigrade heat the 450 or so prisoners were kept in the containers without water, food, or toilet facilities, in what Hassani called “among the worst of many bad things” he and his men had been forced to do. “I can still hear the noise, the desperate banging on the metal and the muffled cries that gradually grew softer,” Hassani told Lamb.

Marri’s story – a bird singing in the tree

“…I hope this will help you outside understand the feelings of an educated Afghan female who must now live under a burqa.” – Marri’s first letter to Christina Lamb, dated 24 September 2001.


Marri and Christina did not know each other when Marri first wrote to Christina. The process of learning about each other, the discovery of the humanity behind the rhetoric of Afghanistan symbolised by their search for each other, is the focus of this book, which makes it indeed as much Marri’s as Christina’s story.

On 13 November 2001 Marri wrote to Christina: “Kabul is free, can you believe it!” The Northern Alliance had advanced on the city and the Taliban had left, as Marri wrote, “like thieves in the night.”

After the Taliban rule ended Marri wrote of the return of simple, everyday things that had been banished by the religious fanaticism: “Our new neighbours have small children and they are laughing – their father has brought them a pink and green paper kite and it is flying high in the sky. How long it is since we heard laughter – now imagine, that was banned too.”

Boy flying kite in Kabul in February 2002

Marri ends this letter: “This is a sweet night.”

In a diary entry in February 2002 Marri wrote, “Soon it will be spring, there will be cherry blossoms, maybe we will hang up our burqas for good and even start to love again.”

During the Eid holiday in 2001 Christina began to search for Marri in the crowded part of Kabul called Microrayon, having only Marri’s letters to guide her. The search lasted two months, two months of meeting and questioning many, many people, following false leads and getting discouraged.

Izatullah, one of Kabul’s leading kite makers, was jailed by the Taliban and all his kites burned.

It was only on the day before Christina was due to leave Afghanistan that she got word that her helper Tawfiq Massood had found Marri, not in Microrayon but on the other side of Kabul, where she and her family had fled to escape the noise and the bombs.

“Since the Taliban left I cannot stop smiling,” Marri told Christina. “The snows have come back to the city and today there was a bird singing in the tree. And now you have come.”

Christina pointed out that Marri had taken a huge risk in writing and smuggling the letters out of Afghanistan, and asked why she had done it.

“We thought we were the forgotten people,” Marri said. “…it gave us hope that someone somewhere wanted to know…”

When they parted Marri gave Christina a parcel wrapped in a cloth – when Christina opened it she found it was Marri’s diary.

“We must never forget”

The entrance to the “Golden Needle” sewing circle of Herat.

Women in Herat window-shopping for white shoes.

One of the enduring themes of this book is the survival of human values, human activities, in spite of the dreadful effects of the inhumanity of war and religious fanaticism, ideology and economics.

One symbol of that was the Sewing Circles of Herat, which give the book its title. Under the Taliban, literature, especially Western literature, was a forbidden subject, especially for women, who were not allowed education of any sort.

In an alley in Herat was a doorway with the sign: “Golden Needle, Ladies’ Sewing Classes, Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays”.

“Three times a week for the previous five years, young women, faces and bodies disguised by their Taliban-enforced uniforms of washed-out blue burqas and flat shoes, would knock at the yellow wrought-iron door. In their handbags, concealed under scissors, cottons, sequins and pieces of material, were notebooks and pens.”

This was the home of Mohammed Nasir Rahiyab, professor of literature at the Herat University, where he gave the women lessons on literary criticism, aesthetics and poetry, including western classics. All subjects forbidden by the Taliban, more especially to women.

Why run this “Sewing Circle”?

Refugee children in Maslakh camp, Herat, forced from their homes by the 23 years of war.

The professor explained: “If the authorities had known that we were not only teaching women, but teaching them high levels of literature we would have been killed. But a lot of fighters sacrificed their lives over the years for the freedom of this city. Shouldn’t a person of letters make that sacrifice too?”

Zena and Leyla risked imprisonment and beatings to study literature

The professor added: “A society without literature is a society that is not rich and does not have a strong core. If there wasn’t so much illiteracy and lack of culture in Afghanistan then terrorism would never have found its cradle here.”

Words of amazing optimism in a land in which, in a few years, one-and-a-half million people had been killed, and millions more horribly injured and displaced. And typical of the incredible power of the human spirit to endure and to choose life, if not to flourish, even in the most unconducive conditions.

As Christina’s friend Hamid Gilani put it in the final words of this fascinating and important book, “… we lost so many people. One and a half million. That’s too big a number. Every one of them had their story and we must never forget.”

Copyright Note

The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, is by Tony McGregor. The illustrations are taken from the book The Sewing Circles of Herat by Christina Lamb (HarperCollins, 2002) and are copyright by the author.

Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

The beginning of something new – a portrait in jazz

The players on the date

“The beginning of something too new to invite easy description” – that’s how jazz critic Rob Mariani recalls pianist Bill Evans’ debut at New York’s Village Vanguard in the early 1960s. He might have been describing Evans’1959 album, A Portrait in Jazz, recorded almost at the end of jazz’s most amazing year, a year which saw the recording of many albums which have become “classics” of jazz.

Evans went into a studio on 28 December 1959 under the direction of producer Orrin Keepnews, with young bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian to lay down 11 tracks of a new way for a jazz piano trio to play and sound.

Evans himself was an almost painfully shy young man of 30 who was battling some internal demons, partly the result of being the only white musician in the Miles Davis sextet, which in fact he had left to follow his own dreams just more than a year before. Earlier in 1959 Davis had hired Evans to return to the sextet just to record that other classic 1959 album Kind of Blue.

Scott LaFaro, a young musician born in Newark, New Jersey, was only 23 at the time of Portrait in Jazz,and was already making a name for himself, having played with Chet Baker, Buddy De Franco, Sonny Rollins, Harold Land and Hampton Hawes. Earlier in 1959 he also played with Thelonius Monk, and would go on in 1960 to join Ornette Coleman in the ground-breaking double quartet album Free Jazz with Charlie Haden on the other bass.

Paul Motian, then a 28-year-old drummer from Providence, Rhode Island, is a drummer of great sensitivity with a very distinctive style, who nevertheless was capable of providing superb backing to a wide range of musicians besides Evans: he played with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, with Oscar Pettiford, Lennie Tristano and Zoot Sims, and even recorded with Arlo Guthrie.

Bill Evans himself was also, like LaFaro, a New Jersey native, born in Plainfield in 1929, to a Rusyn mother and an alcoholic father of Welsh extraction. His mother was herself an amateur musician who encouraged young Bill to study the modern classical composers. I wonder to what extent Evans’ sometimes melancholic sound is the result of the influence of these two cultures on him? The
Rusyn people are an eastern Slavic ethnic group who have always been overshadowed by the other people with whom they shared living space, the Poles, the Russians and the Slovaks. The Welsh are Celts with their own history of struggling for identity. Another famous person with a Rusyn background is artist Andy Warhol (Warhola), born just a year before Evans, in Pittsburgh PA.

So it was a highly talented and individual group of musicians who went into that studio. And the music they left on the tapes was similarly individual and new. Davis, in his autobiography, said of Evans’ piano playing, “The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.”

Track 1: Come Rain or Come Shine

The tracks the trio laid down in the studio that day were all standards except for two compositions by Evans, namely “Peri’s Scope” and the song attributed also to Davis, “Blue in Green”, which the Davis sextet had recorded earlier in the year on the album Kind of Blue.

The first track on the album is Harold Arlen tune “Come Rain or Come Shine”, the Johnny Mercer lyrics of which were sung so wonderfully by Billie Holiday. It was written for the show St Louis Woman and was published and recorded several times in 1946, and in the years following. In this trio’s hands it is a beautifully thoughtful ballad in which the playing of LaFaro takes the tune to new heights. The whole track feels indeed “High as a mountain and deep as a river” with delicate harmonies from both the piano and the bass, underscored by the beautiful brushwork of Motian who keeps the whole thing moving gently along.

Tracks 2 & 3: Autumn Leaves

The second (in stereo) and third (mono) tracks feature the ever-green (to coin a phrase!) “Autumn Leaves” written, originally as “Les feuilles mortes” by Joseph Kosma in 1945, to which Johnny Mercer added English lyrics in 1947. The interplay between piano and bass in the opening few bars is delicious beyond words. The trio play the song mid-tempo rather than the more usual slow pace, which helps it avoid the kind of mawkishness it sometimes achieves in certain hands. The way the three members of the trio interchange ideas all through the track is just exquisite. I am never sure who is leading whom, they all come across so strongly and with such conviction. A beautiful number indeed.

Track 4: Witchcraft

Track 4 is the Cy Coleman song taken to great heights by Frank Sinatra in 1957, “Witchcraft”. Listen out for LaFaro’s incredible solo. It’s a virtuoso performance from a young bassist just getting into his stride, and what a stride it is! In fact LaFaro pretty much dominates this track, with some really brilliant playing and thoughtful phrases that just jump out at the listener. He goes with such ease from the bottom register of his instrument to very high flights of melodic invention at the top end of the ergister without for one moment losing the momentum of the piece, in fact propelling it along at a good pace, keeping it swinging all the way. A grand example of the art of the bass.

Track 5: When I Fall In Love

The next track features Victor Young’s “When I Fall in Love” made into a hit in 1952 by Doris Day, with words by Edward Heyman. The song was written for the 1952 movie One Minute to Zero, in which it featured as an instumental. It has since become a very popular standard for jazz musicians from the likes of Miles Davis to Toots Thielemans. This trio takes it very slowly and ruminatively, a seemingly deliberate contrast to the “restless world like this is” of the lyrics.

Track 6: Peri’s Scope

On the next track the trio gets back into swinging mood with Evans’ own song “Peri’s Scope.” with Evans creating a very interesting series of melodic variations in the right hand with strong comping in the left. And as high as Evans takes the melody, LaFaro is right there with him, never losing a beat or getting left behind for one second by the piano’s flights. Motian puts rhythmic emphases in exactly the right spots to keep the whole thing together.

Track 7: What Is This Thing Called Love

The next track is a song of the same vintage an Evans himself, Cole Porter’s 1929 song “What Is This Thing Called Love?” The trio make this into a wonderful up-tempo romp after a slightly quiet start which is quickly blown away by the harmonic inventiveness of Evans and LaFaro and the solid rhythm supplied by Motian. In fact, in my view, this is Motian’s track. A lovely solo by LaFaro is followed by an exciting yet solid drum solo, all too short in my view. But Motian really shines all through the track as he keeps his partners to the rhythm. An interesting note about this tune is that it has been reinterpreted many times by jazz musicians, and sometimes transformed into new pieces. For example, Tadd Dameron based his great tune “Hot House” which Charlie Parker played so wonderfully, on “What is This Thing Called Love,” and John Coltrane based his great tune “Fifth House” on “Hot House.”

Track 8: Spring is Here

The next track opens with a beautiful singing note by Evans which became the subject of a whole page of analysis by Peter Pettinger in his book on Evans, How My Heart Sings. The song in this case is the 1938 Richard Rodgers composition which Alec Wilder called “a shattering ballad”, “Spring is Here.” The song was written for a broadway musical I Married an Angel and was in fact the second song Rodgers and his partner Lorenz Hart had written with that title. The first was an upbeat song written in 1929 and quickly forgotten. In the trio’s hands this is a brilliant exposition in notes of the melancholy of the words:

“Spring is here!

Why doesn’t my heart go dancing ?

Spring is here!

Why isn’t the waltz entrancing?”

The song ends with a gently cascading rain of notes from Evans, reflecting a feeling, the irony, of the last line of the song: “Spring is here I hear.”

Track 9: One Day My Prince Will Come

Next up is another popular jazz standard, from the calssic Walt Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves of 1937. The song was written by Frank E. Churchill with lyrics by Larry Morey. One of the moist famous jazz recordings is the 1961 version by Miles on his eponymously-named album. The Evans trio show their melodic and rhythmic virtuosity in this number, which again features a glorious LaFaro solo.

Tracks 10 & 11: Blue in Green

The last two tracks are of the Davis/Evans tune “Blue in Green“which Evans had recorded with Davis earlier in 1959. This tune has been the subject of speculation about who really wrote it for decades now. According to Ashley Kahn ( Kind of Blue, The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, 2000) Evans told the story: “One day at Miles’s apartment, he wrote on some manuscript paper the symbols for G-minor and A-augmented. And he said, ‘What would you do with that?’ I didn’t really know, but I went home and wrote ‘Blue in Green.'” On Kind of Blue the song is attributed to Davis alone,while on Portrait it is attibuted to Davis/Evans. Is it that important who wrote it? It’s a wonderful tune with great moments for all three of the musicians on this album.


Overall, this is an album worth savouring. It bears repeated listening. Indeed, listening to it over and over again as I have done over the past few days, it reveals new subtleties and nuances every time. There are many critics who dismiss this album, and indeed much of Evans’ playing, as little more than good quality cocktail lounge music. I would strongly disagree with that assessment. There is lyricism and harmony a-plenty, but the rhythmic and harmonic subtleties and the way the tracks are structured lift this album way above cocktail music. The interplay between the musicians is always a delight, and each time I have listened to this album I have found new delights. Jazz piano trios would never sound the same again, and pianists, bass players and drummers all can learn from the playing on this rich and deep album.


Voices of the past, voices of the present – re-imagining our history a pre-requisite for peace

“If you can’t see the country’s past, if you can’t hear the voices from the past then you can’t understand the present.” – Anglican priest Michael Weeder, quoted in Mike Nicol’s Sea-Mountain, Fire City (Kwela Books, 2001).

“On its own the passage of time neither heals injustices nor pacifies antagonists.” – Bernard F. Connor OP, The Difficult Traverse (Cluster Publications, 1998).

When ANC Youth League president Julius Malema made his now-infamous statement that “all whites are criminals”, in reference to what he termed the “theft” of land by whites from blacks, the response of most whites was defensive – taking the form of either an aggressive denial or a personal attack on Malema himself.

The Slave Lodge in Cape Town. Under a tree close by this building weekly slave auctions were held.

While understandable, these responses are not helpful, and also show a very basic misunderstanding of the history of this complex country. Perhaps such misunderstanding is not surprising, given the many years of racist propaganda to which many whites have been subject for so long.

Certainly Malema’s statement was calculated – and he is too clever a politician not to have calculated this – to excite his followers and to provoke his white opponents. He certainly succeeded in achieving both those outcomes, though his very success raises many other questions.

The most basic question is, what sort of South Africa do we want? And how do we want, in this envisaged country, to relate to our past? We need to ask these questions, and to begin to search for answers, before we can move on, because we will not be able to move on until our relation to our past is clarified. The experiences of Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Chile, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Argentina and even the United States, attest to this, as indeed do the responses to Malema’s statement.

Lithuanian philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who lived through a time of unparalleled violence against his fellow-Jews wrote:

“Violence does not consist so much in injuring and annihilating persons as in interrupting their continuity, making them play roles in which they no longer recognise themselves, making them betray not only commitments but their own substance, making them carry out actions that will destroy every possibility of action.”

Police supoervise the destruction of Modderdam on the Cape Flats, August 1977. Image from "A Shanty Town in South Africa" by Andrew Silk, 1981.

South Africa has certainly experienced much of this type of violence in the more than 500 years of white intrusion onto the soil of this southern tip of the great continent.

The first violence in this intrusion took place in 1487 when Portuguese sea captain Bartolomeu Días, using his cross-bow, shot and killed a black African at the place he called São Bras, which we now call Mossel Bay.

In the light of the later propaganda about who was here first, it is perhaps relevant to note that the people who were seen on that fateful shore in 1487 were “blacks, with woolly hair like those of Guinea” – i.e. most likely Bantu-speaking people and not Khoisan, indicating that the apartheid discourse that whites moved into empty land when moving east from the Cape Colony and that the Bantu-speaking people arrived there at about the same time was a lie.

Emblem of the Dutch East India Company carved above the entrance to Cape Town Castle Circa 1680. Photo by Andrew Massyn via Wikipedia

When the Dutch arrived at the Cape and started to develop their replenishment station below Table Mountain in 1652 they found Khoikhoi people already in residence there and began systematically to displace them. The first “apartheid” barrier was the almond hedge planted by Jan van Riebeeck to keep the Khoikhoi out of the Dutch East India Company’s gardens growing on land that the Khoikhoi had for generations considered “theirs”. This was perhaps the first “land grab without compensation” in South Africa’s history. The first, but by no means the last.

The planting of the Dutch settlement at the Cape was also a grave interruption of the continuity of the indigenous people. It interrupted the continuity of the grazing of their cattle; it interrupted their freedom of movement across the land and interrupted the natural power relations between groups by introducing outside influences.

The very beginning of what we now call South Africa was steeped in violence and the voices of those who suffered need to be heard, even at the distance across time of more than 500 years, as do those who suffered after.

Can you hear the voices whispering in the mists coming down Hoerikwaggo?

We all in South Africa at the beginning of the 21st Century need to open our ears to those voices which call to us down the centuries, those voices which, if we are still and listen, we might hear carried on the winds which blow down the crevasses and kloofs of Hoerikwaggo (or Sea-Mountain, as Table Mountain was called by the Khoikhoi), or in the hot winds of the Karoo or the gales across the Highveld, the songs and laments of Khoisan, of slaves, of Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Tswana. We might, if we listen carefully, also hear the cries of children and women and old people trekking through the unknown, fearful and tired.

History, it has been said, is always written by the victorious. In Africa we also have a saying, that until the lion tells his story, the hunter is always the hero.

And so I think we have to re-imagine our history. We have to use our minds’ eyes to see how people have lived and died, and begin to re-interpret the meaning of that living and dying. We have to try to imagine what it must have been like for those people on the shore at São Bras to have seen these strangers arrive, and to have seen one of their own killed by this hither-to unknown weapon.

It is important too that we try to understand the feelings of Khoikhoi at the Cape when Van Riebeeck planted the Dutch flag (or was it the flag of the Dutch East India Company?) on their soil. And the fears of the Dutchmen who were given the task of making the Cape a viable investment for that company – what were their feelings about being stuck in this strange land, surrounded by people who were so different?

Ven. Michael Weeder, now Dean of St George's Cathedral, Cape Town. Image from

To quote Michael Weeder again (from Nicol’s book) talking about the Slave Tree monument in Cape Town: “Families were destroyed here. Children sold to one person, their mothers sold to another. A woman sold to a farmer in Stellenbosch, her man sold to a merchant in Cape Town. Can you Imagine that? Can you just imagine what it was like, all the misery that happened here on the ground beneath our feet?”

The great chief Maqoma

The great chief Maqoma. South African Library, Cape Town

Can you imagine how the great chief Maqoma felt, lying on the ground with the booted foot of that hyperactive Governor of the Cape Harry Smith on his neck?

Can you imagine the pain of a young mother dumped with her little children in the veld at Dimbaza in the middle of winter?

Image from the film "Last Grave at Dimbaza"

Can you imagine the anguish of a father watching the home he had painstakingly built for his family at Modderdam or Crossroads being demolished?

Can you imagine how a descendent of Sekwati (chief of the Pedi at the time of the Great Trek) must feel every time he or she sees the Voortrekker Monument?

South Africa is a complex country with a rich history which, like all histories, is an interpretation of what we have been taught, what we have read, what we have experienced. No one history or interpretation of history, can adequately do justice to where we are today in this country.

If we are to make something of this country, we need to listen and understand each other, and that takes patience and a willingness to learn. A willingness, a humility, to allow another person’s history, in a sense, to become my own.

Typical apartheid sign. Image via Wikipedia

Typical apartheid sign. Image via Wikipedia

Of course we cannot change the past – what has happened has happened. There can be no turning back of the clock – indeed to which time would we turn it? But we have to deal with the past some creative way without denying anything in it. As Beyers Naude said, “No healing is possible without reconciliation, and no reconciliation is possible without justice, and no justice is possible without some form of genuine restitution.”

In the Interim Constitution, which was the basis for the elections of 1994 and the subsequent Government of National Unity, a statement about reconciliation was included which might be a basis for our moving forward. The Interim Constitution spoke of the “need for understanding but not for vengeance; a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimisation.”

In the Preamble to the Freedom Charter is the statement “that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.”

In his recent speech at Stellenbosch, which has aroused the fury of so many whites, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu said:

“Our white fellow citizens have to accept the obvious: You all benefited from apartheid. But that does not mean that all are responsible for apartheid.

“Your children could go to good schools. You lived in smart neighbourhoods. Yet so many of my fellow white citizens become upset when you mention this. Why? Some are crippled by shame and guilt and respond with self-justification or indifference. Both attitudes make that we are less than we can be.”

We are all here now and belong here simply because we are here. There is absolutely no profit for any of us in self-justification or indifference.

To make our future together we have to let go of guilt and let go of the need to justify any of the evils of the past. We have to understand where we come from by hearing those voices from the past and make active efforts to change ourselves, to, in Gandhi’s famous words, “be the change we want to see.”

We defeat ourselves if we wallow in guilt or recrimination, or, with indifference, wait for the passage of time to heal the many injustices and antagonisms that have arisen in the course of our complex, rich and fascinating history.

We can be so much more.

© Text and photos, unless otherwise indicated, copyright by Tony McGregor 2011

Where to find zebras (and more!) in Pretoria

A scheme to provide employment to many otherwise unemployed people during the Great Depression of the late 1920s has developed into a wonderful nature reserve where zebras, birds, buck and vegetation abound in peace. [Read more…]

The Union Buildings in Pretoria – summing up an architectural era


The Union Buildings from the foot of Meintjies Kop.

The Union Buildings from the foot of Meintjies Kop.

After the dreadful sufferings of the people of Southern Africa in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902 there was widespread support for the unification of the four British colonies which had been involved in the conflict – the Cape Colony, Natal, the Orange River Colony (formerly the Orange Free State Republic) and the Transvaal Colony (formerly the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek).

Movement towards unification was speeded up by the calling, mostly at Jan Smuts’s insistence, of the National Convention which sat from 1908 to 1910.

When it became clear that Unification was almost certain, the search for a suitable capital and an appropriate building to symbolize the unified nation, Pretoria was settled on as the administrative capital while Cape Town was given the legsilature of the new country.

The Union Buildings from the other side of the valley

An architect who had made quite a name for himself in South Africa, Herbert (later Sir Herbert) Baker, was given the commission to design the building and a site on Pretoria’s Meintjies Kop was decided on.


Looking up at the East Wing of the Union Buildings.

Looking up at the East Wing of the Union Buildings.

Baker, who would later go on to collaborate with Edwin Lutyens in designing the capital of India in New Delhi, was an almost exact contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, and, as Desirée Seymour-Picton wrote in her excellent book Historical Buildings in South Africa (Struikhof, 1989): “Wright was the innovator, Baker the apotheosis of an era, a dying era.


The statue of former Prime Minister J.B.M. Hertzog in the gardens of the Union Buildings

Baker designed a building which, in its breadth and classical lines, would symbolise the reconciliation and inclusiveness (at least of the two white language groups, English and Afrikaans) that was the hope of the unifiers.

The Union Buildings occupy the lovely position on Meintjies Kop with grace and grandeur. The two domed towers on the two wings of the sweeping building represent the two language groups, while the curved colonade represents the unifying constitution which guaranteed a place for each language in the new country.

The building process took three years and was completed by 1265 workers at a cost of £1,310,640. Because of the design each stone had to be individually dressed. Mostly local materials were used and the roofing tiles were manufactured in Vereeniging.


The Union Buildings are a popular tourist site and so the sidewalk salespeople do a roaring trade in front of them.

The Union Buildings are a popular tourist site and so the sidewalk salespeople do a roaring trade in front of them.

It was also highly significant and symbolic that when, after the 1994 elections which brought full dcemocracy to South Africa, the first president of the new South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, was inaugurated against the backdrop of that graceful colonade.

© Text and photos copyright Tony McGregor 2011

Pretoria’s Botanical Gardens

Botanical gardens are always interesting and beautiful. The National Botanical Gardens in Pretoria are no exception, and provide a lovely setting for concerts and picnics into the bargain!

Vegetation on the warmer north-facing side of the quartzite outcropping

[Read more…]

Climbing up to the Wonderboom Fort in Pretoria


The cool and leafy interior of the Wonderboom

Just north of the Magaliesberg range which thrusts into Pretoria is the Wonderboom Nature Reserve, so called because of the huge 1000-year-old Ficus (wild fig) tree growing there.

[Read more…]

Suburban pastorale – a place of peace in the east of Pretoria

Surrounded by suburban homes and high-rise blocks of apartments in the eastern Pretoria suburb of Lynnwoood Glen lies a peaceful bird sanctuary and dam called Struben Dam.


The peaceful waters of Struben Dam reflect tranquility

[Read more…]

Historic Burgers Park in the centre of Pretoria


The kiosk in the garden seen from the main gate.

In the bustling centre of South Africa’s Capital City, Pretoria, is a beautiful botanical garden where people relax under colourful flowering trees surrounded by signs of the history of the city.


People relaxing near a flowering bougainvillea

Burgers Park came about as a result of the dream of then-President of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR) Thomas Francois Burgers (1834 – 1881) that a botanical garden be built in Pretoria.

Burgers was unfortunately not see his dream realised as the garden was only laid out in 1892 due to financial constraints on the country.


The modern florarium

Today the park boasts a kiosk where light meals and refeshments can be bought and a modern florarium (built in 1974) housing plants from all over South Africa.

The entrance to the park is in Jacob Maré Street opposite the famous Melrose House where the Treaty of Vereeninging ending the Anglo-Boer War was signed in 1902.

The eclectic architecture of historic Melrose House opposite the entrance to Burgers Park.

© Text and photos copyright Tony McGregor 2011